WOLFEBORO, N.H. — When Jane O’Toole overheard an elected police commissioner calling President Obama a racial slur at a local restaurant back in March, she was bereft.
She had moved to town four months earlier, and was smitten with Wolfeboro. That night she had been feeling particularly joyful. She was out to dinner to celebrate her doctor’s declaration that day that she was cancer-free eight years after her diagnosis. Suddenly, there was this, an ugliness uttered by a town official with decision-making powers over the police.
“Really, it just felt like an insult to the human race,” said the 57-year-old retired marketing consultant.
O’Toole decided to notify the town manager. She wrote a letter to the local paper. People told her nothing would come of it. Commissioner Robert Copeland was a long-timer, known as Bob to most everyone. She was a newcomer. Lines would be drawn.
Lines were drawn, in some ways predictably. The commissioner’s allies rallied behind him. The commissioner refused to stand down.
But along the way, the town stood up.
Facebook pages launched with comments giving the commissioner his what-for. Letters protesting the commissioner filled the pages of the local paper. People attended a town meeting en masse to demand his resignation. Officials declared his comments appalling. Citizens planned a rally for later in the month, which, it turned out, was not needed.
This week, Copeland, 82, a retired lawyer, caved with two words, “I resign.”
To many here, the resignation felt like the coda to a kind of Wolfeboro Spring, a joining of natives and transplants, Democrats and Republicans, elderly and young, to oust a leader in power who otherwise might have hung on.
“We came together, and there’s solace in good company,” said Brian Murphy, a retired school security director who grew up in Lowell.
The resignation was particularly poignant, coming after a string of racially offensive comments by high-profile men. Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner, has signaled that he will not pay a fine to the NBA for his remarks about African-Americans, and Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who gained worldwide attention for refusing to remove his cattle from government land, offered a wan apology for publicly denigrating African-Americans in front of a reporter.
Copeland, reelected to a three-year term in March, could not be reached for comment about his resignation.
To be sure, outside pressure was mounting after Copeland’s statement became public.
At the Wolfeboro Inn, prospective patrons called saying they were reconsidering visits while Copeland was still in office. At Brewster Academy, a prep school in town, parents and alumni called inquiring about the incident and expressing dismay. News accounts were proliferating, many noting that Wolfeboro was, like much of New Hampshire, overwhelmingly white. Mitt Romney, who owns a vacation home in the town, called on Copeland to apologize and resign.
“It was a very stressful week, in terms of the negative attention to the town,” said Darrin Frowery, general manager of the the Wolfeboro Inn. “But we are a very good town, with a solid community, and deep down people knew that.”
This being New England, reserve ruled at first. “Like with anything of this sort, we didn’t say much. ‘This is quite the thing,’ and ‘Oh, my gosh.’ And we all understood,” Murphy said.
Then, just as quickly, reserve fell away.
“We were struck by how many people came out to share their feelings about the commission,” said Michael Bloomer, a high school junior who was among the more than 100 people who attended the regularly scheduled meeting on May 15 of the police commissioners, elected officials who have authority over the hiring and firing of police.
Bloomer has started a petition seeking to disband the three-member police commission.
Bloomer’s father said speakers at the meeting came from many different backgrounds, with plenty of Republicans, who outnumber Democrats, coming to the defense of a US president they did not vote for.
“We had bipartisan outrage,” said Brian Bloomer, a teacher.
Jennifer Fraser Haynes, a mother of two who runs an adaptive sports program, said the issue transcended politics.
“I think [President Obama] should be treated with respect,” said Haynes, a Republican originally from the Philadelphia area. “As an American, I found it disgusting that someone would speak like that.”
Amy Bergeron, who was standing nearby at the supermarket where Haynes was doing some shopping after work this week, took exception. “If you knew Bob Copeland, you’d know he was out to dinner, drinking at a bar.”
“And that’s an excuse?” Haynes asked.
“He’s a wonderful man with a strong personality,” Bergeron said.
In an interview later, Bergeron, a 40-year-old food caterer and Wolfeboro native, said she has worked for Copeland. She believed O’Toole should have kept quiet about what she overheard because it was Copeland’s First Amendment right to speak his mind.
“He may have made a poor word choice, but why can’t we be strong in our opinions?” said Bergeron.
O’Toole said she thought about lying low. But she said she grew up an Army brat, Fort Devens among her stops, living among people of all backgrounds.
“I’d come here to live in peace and quiet, but it just gnawed at me. It gnawed and gnawed to the point that I had to put it down on paper, and I finally took a deep breath and hit send.”